A quick response to to polymath Chris DeLeon's thoughtful post
exhorting the virtues of
A position of ignorance
Right off the bat I should qualify all this by saying that I don't know
anything about Philosophy. I've never studied it. It seems at times to
be an alien mismatch to the sensibilities of my left-brained mind, and
worse, one that claims to be about logic and reasoning, topics that
ostensibly should be right up my alley. I read Bertrand Russell's
History of Western Philosophy last year, and although that was a
fabulous, educational romp through the field, my complaints about
it still stand. Now I'm reading a second
book, Think : A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn.
The process of thinking about things is a valuable and worthwhile
endeavour. Some people enjoy it, some people don't. Amongst those who
enjoy it, it becomes an end unto itself, and thought and discussions
typically stray towards the more abstract, the more meta, the more
foundational. Anyone who has gleefully participated in a pub discussion
about religion, death, reality, consciousness, government, or any of a
million other topics has participated in this process. It is joyful,
sometimes enlightening, entertaining, and refines the individual's
ability to meaningfully reason on all kinds of topics, from the abstract
to the prosaic. In this sense, and especially from the perspective of
the individual's active participation in the activity, I'm all in favour
of philosophy. Presumably this is why I have been drawn back to read
this second book.
If anything, I have had more objections to Think than I had to
Russell's book. At first, I thought that my issue was simply that the
discussed historical philosophers produced curiously shoddy work. Their
premises seem shaky. Their arguments full of holes at best. Their
conclusions entirely suspect. While there are some genuinely insightful
ideas and arguments, they are often mutually contradictory, and the
signal to noise is terrible.
Chris points out the importance of reading a decent translation of the
original sources to gain enough insight to benefit from the arguments,
and in this I defer to his experience. There certainly are some
historical philosophers who seem to make a lot more sense to me than the
others. I had not expected to have to pick and choose based so much upon
my own personal preferences, so in some way my frustration here is
perhaps indicative of an expectation mismatch.
As for Think, as I continue to read, it has slowly dawned on me that
perhaps this impression is actually because the author himself is an
appalling philosopher (sorry Simon!) Every few pages he makes what seems
to me like a terrible logical blunder. If this were correct, that would
presumably make his interpretation of historical philosophers equally
suspect, and perhaps this is why they so often seem simply ludicrous to
I realise it is arrogant and bonkers for me to assume I can outclass the
author, a man apparently of considerable knowledge and experience, at
his own game. But this is how it seems to me, so what am I to make of
It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:
- Professor Blackburn's thinking is entirely defective. I am sure this
cannot be the case. He is a professor of his subject, his book,
while quite understandably not comparable to Russell, has garnered
great reviews on Amazon and in the press, for whatever that's worth.
As a layman I shall accord him the deference that is entirely his
- My own thinking is entirely defective. This is, of course, entirely
possible, however distasteful it may be to me. How would I know? In
defence of my sanity, I note that I seem to get by, more or less, in
everyday life. Or at least, I don't seem to be any more confounded
by the state of the world than the people around me.
- Perhaps, then, the problem lies not solely with myself, but is
shared by us all. Perhaps human reasoning as expressed in the
English language is generally not sufficiently precise, well-defined
or powerful to support consistent philosophical arguments of the
type that are being put forward. More generally, we aren't remotely
as good at thinking as we think we are. Pretty much I'm saying
that (1) and (2) are both true, but that both the professor and I
can derive some comfort from the idea that the same applies to
pretty much everybody else.
There is, of course, a method for dealing with the unreliability of our
thoughts and perceptions - the scientific method, in its many forms and
manifestations. I have friends who claim that the scientific method came
out of philosophy, and while I have some reservations about the truth of
this in the day-to-day reality of individual practitioners, of course in
an abstract sense I can see that this lineage is real.
Application of the scientific method would be the normal way out of the
morass of imprecise thoughts that, to date, characterise the majority of
philosophy for me. Some aspects of ancient philosophy have proven
tractable in this regard. These are the subjects that have subsequently
calved off from philosophy to form whole new fields and sciences.
Of course, this has the curious effect of diluting the perceived value
of philosophy. As soon as the application of the scientific method lets
thinkers actually gain any traction and start to make real progress on
their topic, we immediately snip that subject off from the realm of
philosophy and give it a different name. Astronomy and cosmology,
biology and psychology, chemistry, physics, and many more. Philosophy
proper, then, consists of the left over bits - the topics upon which the
scientific method has not proven applicable, and hence upon which no
meaningful progress can be made.
Chris, and discussion with friends, has helped me see that in this
dismissal, I was overlooking the value of philosophy as an incubator for
other fields. This is of course critical to the development of human
civilisation, and of interest to historians of the respective fields.
What it isn't
What I'm left with is the impression that my minor experiences of
philosophy would have been much improved if my expectations had been
very different at the outset.
My layman's impression of philosophy from the outside was that it
claimed to be the study of tremendously insightful reasoning done by
some of the most powerful minds in history. This expectation was
naturally bound to lead me to be disappointed when my initial foray led
me to discover that many philosophers, particularly ancient ones,
distorted as they are by translation and interpretation, cultural
mismatch, and lack of my modern knowledge of the world, appear to my
sensibilities to be pretty poor. I hope to improve on this situation by
taking on board Chris' advice about choosing particular philosophers who
resonate for me personally, together with the idea of studying
particular translations of original works, rather than quick summaries.
In addition, I had an expectation that all this intense thought might
lead to some more definitive and objective conclusions. However ancient
philosophers acted without the benefit of the scientific method, and
modern philosophy is pruned of topics to which the scientific method is
applicable. As a result, there is much bad mixed in with the good. Even
the good parts cannot be trusted as a guide to any sorts of truth, since
choosing 'the good parts' seems to be a subjective process.
This seems inevitable, since without the benefit of the scientific
method, there is no utility function to be used as feedback, by which
ideas could be judged and one school of thought meaningfully compared
against another. There can be no definitive winners or losers, and
without competition, ideas cannot improve by evolution. Instead, each
contributor adds their own voice to the mutually contradictory babble,
and it is left to the reader to sift through for the parts of value.
The lack of an objective means to prune the discussion of its less
worthy branches mean that many philosophers are deified, their writings
sacrosanct and studied for generations, even in cases where they were
clearly absolutely wrong. (Plato's thoughts about the shapes of atoms,
for example.) I accept that study of historical and ancient philosophers
is valid for the perspective it gives on the process of philosophy,
and as a study of the history of philosophy itself. However, I am
appalled that so much of their actual, specific writings are studied and
discussed in so much detail, in the same way I would be mortified by the
prospect of scholars spending centuries reviewing the specifics of what
me and my friends said in our philosophical discussions in the pub.
There may be some value in there, but I came to this expecting a précis
of the best minds in the world, not a mishmash of sometimes incoherent
I've done a lot of bitching, but don't take it as a wholesale rejection.
In addition to the things I complain about, there are also a bunch of
really great, stimulating ideas. I just didn't expect to have to do so
much searching and interpretation to find them. Rather, interpret the
above as the painful transitions in my understanding of what philosophy
is, which parts of it are likely to be of value to me, and what I
should expect from it. Thanks to Chris for his significant contributions
towards my continuing education on this.